Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik
He was a sucker for the Christmas season and Levall did the holiday right. Downtown had a lighting program for the trees. Stores decorated their windows and the streetlights sported various holiday figures on brackets.
Scott spent a ridiculous amount on strings of lights to surround his windows. Maybe the ridiculous thing was how much pleasure he got out of watching the light patterns. He bought a small tree because a big one felt desperate.
Next door, the Black Horse was doing gangbuster business. The second floor was booked for a dozen private Christmas parties. The wait staff loved holiday parties because they meant great tips.
He'd gotten a kick out of working as a bar back the last Friday before Christmas. The night ended early as a winter storm bore down on Levall. It blew out of Colorado and northern New Mexico with a vengeance. Snow blanketed everything from Amarillo south to Odessa. By midnight, Levall looked like a winter wonderland.
Scott left the Christmas lights on and went to bed. He was asleep for about an hour when a banging sound from the roof woke him.
The roof deck was an unfinished project, waiting for spring and good barbecue weather. He dressed warmly and climbed the stairs. The wind had blown loose a piece of aluminum awning from somewhere. The metal piece had wrapped around the deck railing and was banging into a post. Scott wrestled it loose and took it inside.
Outside his windows, Main Street was deserted and the accumulated snow was blowing into drifts.
He flipped the TV on to get a weather update and ran through the security monitors to see how the building was handling the winter gale. Snow was drifting against the main gate, but the courtyard looked mostly clear. He could see a few spots where the underground heating wasn't as efficient as could have been.
The view shifted on the screen. "Shit," he muttered. One of the garage cameras had an angle down the park fence line. The shot revealed one of Levall's few street people, sleeping against the fence on the park side. The location made for a lousy camping spot, but he realized that the old street veteran was probably trying to get some warmth off the edge of the courtyard's radiant heating.
According to the building's rooftop weather station, the outside temperature was 22F and falling.
The city had a shelter, but he knew some street people wouldn't give up their alcohol or other intoxicants for entry. Damned if he was going to let some idiot die outside, within view of his door, before Christmas no less.
In a box somewhere, he had an old woolen military blanket. They were scratchy as hell, but warm. He could put the vagrant in the garage till daybreak. The space was heated and dry. At worst he'd lose a few tools if the street person decided to turn a quick buck.
Scott went through the garage side door with the blanket and flashlight. He hit the lights and raised the second garage door. The snow swirled and the stiff wind made the conditions even more miserable. He hadn't looked at the wind-chill factor.
He had to knock ice from the park gate to operate the lock, but the lump of street person didn't stir.
"Hey, buddy," he called, his voice taken away by the wind. "I brought you a blanket and there's a warm place inside. It's too cold to stay here."
He aimed the flashlight on the pile of person, covered in snow. With no reaction, he feared the worst. He tugged a glove off with his teeth, and carefully checked on the figure. Street people could be dangerous. He wasn't worried about that, but he didn't want a fight. Given the conditions, he feared he was checking on a dead body.
He pulled a piece of cardboard aside and reached the figure's neck under a cap and mess of dirty hair.
He pulled his hand back in surprise. Under all the crap was a girl, a half-dead one at that.
"Shit, shit, shit," he repeated. He spread the blanket, wrapped it around the bundle and lifted in one smooth motion. She didn't weigh much at all.
He struggled through the gate, closing it with one hand and moved as quickly as he could for the garage and shelter. He hit the garage door control and knelt quickly to assess how bad it was.
Under the remains of a cardboard box, old plastic, and a couple of threadbare coats was a pale, almost blue girl, young, and with a dangerously depressed pulse. She was cool to the touch with late-stage hypothermia. She was dying. He hoisted her over his shoulder and ran.
He needed to get her warmed up, and fast. He took the stairs two at a time and made for the guest bathroom. He laid his cargo on the bathroom floor and reached for the tub controls. One benefit of on demand hot water was that you got it quickly, and it never ran out.
The spigot on the bath opened wide and the water began to steam. He didn't want to scald her, so he moderated it. Scott looked at the state of the girl and considered tossing her into the bathtub--clothes and all.
He leaned her against the tub and went to work removing the outer layer of clothing. His fingers were numb from the brief trip outside, but he worked on the little buttons. Scott talked to her as he worked, "Don't you die on me, we need to get you warmed up."
The girl offered no resistance, but he heard a faint mumble, " ... alone."
"If I left you alone, you'd be a story in tomorrow's paper. Human popsicle discovered on church grounds, feet from opulent home of some asshole who didn't give a damn."
He got her jeans and socks off, and wrestled her arms out of the shirt with too many tiny buttons. She was a skinny thing, and he revised her age downward. Maybe fifteen, he thought.
He lowered her into the tub and she started to thrash. The hot water probably burned as feeling returned her extremities. He held her until she calmed. Her eyes rolled back and forth under her eyelids.
He needed to do more, or she could still die on him. That meant doing something he'd tried to forget how to do. Scott touched her and opened his mind. Information began to flow into him. The girl was undernourished, but not malnourished. She'd been beaten at some point. He could sense the old injuries, but had missed them as he undressed her. She had several infections; one he was having trouble understanding until his brain supplied the word, 'Chlamydia.' Between poor general health and the end-stage of hypothermia, she was teetering on the brink. He hadn't done it since Afghanistan, but the need was great. He pushed energy into her, through the contact of his hand. Antibodies formed and began to attack the infections with specific intent. Her oxygen intake increased and the wild firing of her synapses calmed. The beat of her heart settled into a strong, steady rhythm. She slept, a deep healing sleep as her body warmed.
He knelt next to the tub, and kept her chin from sliding below the waterline. The faucet provided a steady supply of hot water as the overflow hit the return.
The heat of the bathroom and the water made him groggy. He'd expended too much energy and closed his eyes for a moment.
She jerked awake and startled him.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but withdrew his hand and held it up in a gesture of peace. "You're safe."
The girl's eyes flashed around and down at her body. Her hands covered her chest and translucent bra. He wasn't interested in her tiny breasts anyway.
"You nearly froze to death," he said.
Her eyes grew angry, "What do you want?"
The voice was rough, as if she hadn't used it in a while.
"What I want is not to find frozen bodies next to my fence." He stood and she pulled her knees to her chest. He rummaged in a wall cabinet. "You're lucky I have some towels. You're my first visitor since I moved in."
He set the towels on the vanity and opened the medicine cabinet.
"Washcloth, soap, shampoo," he said, pointing to each item. "New toothbrush and toothpaste. Even a sample deodorant."
Her eyes followed him. He was glad he had at least planned for the random overnight 'friend.'
"I'm going to close the door. It locks, from the inside. You do whatever you need to do. I'll go look for some dry clothes that might fit you."
She didn't respond.
"I'll knock and leave them outside the door. When you're ready, go left and you'll see the kitchen. Maybe we can get some warm food into you."
Scott closed the door. He waited by the foot of the stairs until he heard the soft click of the bathroom door lock.
He trekked upstairs, muttering about Tiny Tim and ghosts of Christmas showing up unannounced.
In the master bedroom, he turned on the TV and selected the one interior camera view that showed the hallway and bathroom door.
The bedroom had 'great closet space' but it was wasted on him. His clothing took up a lonely corner. He had a few boxes from his first apartment stacked inside. He dug around until he found a pair of sweatpants with 'F. S. Cross Country' emblazoned on them. The letters were cracked and faded. He found shorts, old t-shirts, and some thick socks. His old high school track gear would have to do.
He returned downstairs and knocked on the door. "Clothes here when you're ready."
Hot food was something he should probably throw together, but he didn't want to waste his modest foodstuffs until his guest expressed an interest one way or another. He turned the TV on to the weather, just to have some noise filling the quiet.
After ten minutes, he heard the bathroom lock click and the door open.
He knew she'd be wary, so he didn't rush to greet her. He heard the pad of bare feet and turned. His guest walked stark naked till she was about five feet away, and dropped to her knees.
The dirty hair was gone, revealing thin strawberry blonde locks. Her tiny breasts had pale nipples and she was otherwise hairless. "I'll suck or fuck you for," she glanced around, "a hundred bucks."
Scott groaned, grabbed the carefully folded blanket from the back of the couch and walked toward her. He threw the blanket around her shoulders and lifted her to her feet.
"Are you queer?" she said. "You can do me in the ass for one fifty."
"What I don't do," he growled, "is take advantage of little—"
Her lower lip began to tremble.
"—of people who are down on their luck." He pointed toward the bathroom. "Clothes. Dress. Kitchen." He turned the girl by the shoulders and gave her a light shove in the right direction.
It took a few minutes, but she finally emerged from the bathroom and rounded the fireplace into the kitchen. If anything, she appeared even smaller than she had naked.
"I was going to have some hot chocolate," he said. "Would you like some?"
He poured two mugs. He slid one of his favorites across the kitchen island. He only owned three mugs, his favorite had the Marine Corps seal on it.
The girl pulled a stool out from the under the island counter and sat. She took a careful sip, not breaking eye contact with him for a moment.
"Are you some kind of do-gooder?" she asked.
He had to think about that for a moment. "Do you know the story of 'A Christmas Carol'? It's been made into movies and cartoons."
She shrugged again.
"It's about Ebenezer Scrooge, little Tiny Tim and his poor father, Bob Cratchit?"
She showed no sign of recognition.
"Scrooge is an old miserly rich man visited by three ghosts at Christmas. That doesn't ring a bell?"
She didn't react.
"Never mind then," he said. "What kind of person would I be if I let you freeze to death, while I was warm in bed?"
"I wasn't going to die."
"You wouldn't have lasted another half hour," he said. "It's 22 out there, ten degrees below freezing. With the wind chill, it's probably in the teens."
"Why would a rich guy like you care?" she asked, her eyes blazing.
"What's your name?"
"And I'm Comet."
"It's what I like to be called," she mumbled.
"Okay, Star," he said. "My name is Scott. How old are you?"
"Which means you're really fifteen, maybe sixteen at the most."
"I'm seventeen, okay?" She held out a small plastic wallet.
He peered closer. In the plastic window was a state identity card issued to a Taylor Green, seventeen, of Plainview, Texas.
"Taylor's a nice name," he said.
She whipped the wallet out of sight. "Too many Taylors, rich man." She said it like an epitaph.
"Just because every movie bad guy is some rich dude--" he paused, anger was the wrong approach with this girl, "--look, my parents died when I was little. From the age of six to seventeen, I was a ward of the foster-care system. I grew up on a boys ranch, you know what those are?"
Star's head moved slightly. Her version of a nod, he guessed.
"I joined the Marine Corps the day I turned seventeen. Whatever you think you know about me is wrong. I don't know what your story is, but I met all kinds in foster care and we were there for every reason you can think of. None of them were happy stories. Kids who grow up like us have something in common; we want to get somewhere else. So where is it you're trying to get to?"
The girl spoke into her cup, "Florida."
"You have people there?"
Scott rubbed an eye, "You picked a lousy time to try and panhandle your way to Florida."
"It didn't work out like I thought it would."
His thoughts raced as he tried to think of a way to reach the girl. "Any chance you'd go back home?" he asked.
"No! And you can't make me."
"Sorry I asked. Here's another necessary question. Are there any warrants out for you?"
She glared at him, "No. Why?"
"I think you've figured out by now that the world doesn't work the way you want it to, without money. And you need to earn money in a way that you can live with."
Her eyes dropped.
"Levall is a university town. It's a great place for a young ... woman, to get a job."
"Working for you?" she asked. "As what, your naked house girl?"
Scott tried not to laugh. "You'll be a lot warmer if you keep your clothes on, and stop getting strange ideas off the internet."
She rolled her eyes.
"You know the place next door?"
"The restaurant?" she said. "I could smell it."
"I know the manager," he replied. "She's always complaining about how she can't keep good waitresses. You're seventeen. If you got a job there, you'd earn an hourly wage and good tips. Girls who work there are always looking for roommates to split costs with."
Star aka Taylor, looked around as if she were trying to spot the catch.
"You could save a little money and start making decisions for yourself instead of letting the world make them for you."
"Are you hungry?" he asked.
"Tired," she mumbled.
"I'm not surprised. You can sleep in one of the guest bedrooms."
He got up and she followed him at a distance.
"In the morning, if you want to take off you can. Go through that door," he pointed to the main entrance, "and you can exit through the park gate. It's not locked and is the only easy way out of here."
"Okay," she said. She slouched, drawing into herself.
"Or," Scott said as he touched her shoulder lightly.
The girl flinched but didn't move.
"Stay for breakfast. Tomorrow's going to be miserably cold. Stay and I'll introduce you to the restaurant manager. We'll go from there, if you want."
The girl didn't say anything. He gave it seventy to thirty odds that she'd be gone in the morning.
He showed her the nearest guest bedroom. At least the bed had sheets and a blanket. There hadn't been time to examine the room, other than give it a cursory glance. His unexpected guest was as good a test as any.
"You know where the bathroom is. There's uh, no lock for the bedroom door, but you can put something in front of it. I'm not going to bother you."
She shrugged and pulled back the covers.
"I'll be on the couch," he said. "If I don't see you in the morning, I hope things work out for you."
Scott closed the door. He sat on the couch for a long time. The blinking Christmas lights reflected off the dark windows but he barely noticed.
He tried to sleep on the couch, but his thoughts were of Broken Creek and the boys he'd known, or tried not to know. His money had changed foster care in Fort Stockton, for the better. He accepted that no matter how much he spent there would always be people who fell through the cracks. If you got to them younger, there was a better chance of success. Once they were adults, the return on investment for the homeless and indigent narrowed drastically.
He fell asleep thinking about the Rewcastles and predators who preyed on children.
The faint noise of the shower woke him. The windows had switched to daylight mode, and the bright sunlight was harsh against his eyes. He stayed motionless, pretending to sleep as he listened.
The girl moved quietly. He could tell from the slap of her feet that she was barefoot as she moved around on the hardwood floor. She ventured into the kitchen and scrounged. She wouldn't have been making noise in the kitchen if she intended to flee, at least he hoped.
He sat up and stretched, taking it slow.
Scott rubbed his head and wandered into the kitchen. She was wearing an old pair of his track shorts and a Houston Astros t-shirt that had seen better days.
"You don't have any food," she said, "or much kitchen stuff."
"Sorry about that," he replied. "It's a new place and I'm a bachelor."
"I think there's some eggs."
"You've got three, and one's cracked."
"Oh," he thought quickly, "There's a great breakfast place on Fifth Street. We could get pancakes if you'd like."
"I don't have anything dry to wear except what you loaned me."
Scott considered her predicament. At least she was thinking about clothes and not fleeing. "I know a place where we can take care of that. We'll get you some warm clothes and some breakfast."
"What's in it for you?" she asked.
She looked at him.
He stood. "Put on a couple of layers, it's cold out."
"And you'll introduce me to this manager lady? She'll give me a job?"
She followed him into the living room.
"If you make a good impression, she'll give you a fair shot. If that doesn't work, we'll try something else. Sound like a plan?"
"My shoes are soaked and my coat's wet."
"I've got a coat you can borrow," he said, "but we'll have to find some shoes. None of mine will fit you.
"I can double up on socks."
He took it as a good sign that she was solving her own problems, however small. "Why don't you hang out here? Watch some TV while I grab a shower and change?"
Instead, she followed him to the stairs. When he hesitated she stopped. "What, you afraid I'm going see your stuff and rip you off?"
He turned around on the stairs, "No, but I'm going to my bedroom. I didn't want you getting the wrong idea."
"Oh," she said. She brushed past him, "I'm not worried about that. I know you're not gay. It's okay to look."
Scott tried to formulate a response.
"I saw you checking out my ass."
"I wasn't ... you're wearing my old clothes, I—"
"You checked out my ass. It's okay. That and you don't dress nice, that's how I can tell."
"I have some nice stuff," he protested. "These are my middle of the night rescuing frozen girls clothes."
"You don't have any fashion sense."
"That's a stereotype."
"Am I wrong?" she asked.
They reached the top of the stairs.
Scott tried to frame a response. "In my limited experience, no, but you shouldn't generalize."
"How'd you get so rich," Taylor asked. "Are you a drug dealer or do you make porn?"
Scott felt a headache coming on. The way her mind worked was scary. "There are other ways to make money."
"How did you get rich?"
"I made the right investments."
"Sure," she said. "At least you hired a good decorator."
"Thanks, I think."
She stayed at the door to the master bedroom.
He handed her the TV remote and pointed to the little sitting area within that he'd sworn would never be used. "I won't be long."
She pressed the power button. "How many pay per view movies do you think I can buy while you're taking a shower?"
He shook his head and headed for the bathroom. Before he changed his mind, he locked the door. He took a quick shower and hoped he wasn't making a big mistake.
When he emerged from the bathroom, the girl was stretched out on his bed, watching cartoons. She glanced his way.
"Better?" he asked, holding his arms out so she could examine his jeans and long sleeve polo shirt.
"Not bad," she replied.
"I think the coat you can borrow is in the other room."
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
Scott didn't know how to answer that. "I have a friend, we're working on it."
"What does she do?"
"She's a student."
"Why do people say that?" she asked.
"Because the answer to the question isn't something we want to talk about," he replied, "or don't know how to answer."
She followed him next door. The room had a few stacked boxes, but little else.
"What's this, your room for boxes?"
"Haven't decided," he replied. "Here we go." He held the black leather coat he'd paid too much for and rarely wore.
"Cool," she said.
He took her out the other way, past his office.
"Pictures," she said. The girl diverted to his desk and browsed through his framed photos. She picked one up. "You really were in the military."
"I really was."
"Did you kill a lot of people?"
He looked at her, but she was waiting for an answer. "That's not something you should ask a veteran."
Her eyes flashed to his, to see if he were making fun of her.
"Because it's not a video game."
"If you did kill people," she said. "That's cool."
He ignored that.
"Is this sand from the Middle East?" she asked.
She had picked up a little glass vial he kept on the shelf.
"From someplace worse, California."
Her nose wrinkled.
"Let's get going," he said. "You'll need those sweatpants and your shoes."
"You don't want to look at my ass any longer?"
"Funny," he said. "At least with your mouth full at breakfast you won't be able to ask so many questions."
She stopped and a sly smile covered her face, "I know another way my mouth—"
"March!" he said. The girl was trouble he didn't need, and he had no idea how he was going to explain her to Janie, or if he would.
At least it wasn't still snowing, Scott thought. The wind swirled around the courtyard and the air had a sharp crispness to it. He hit an icon on his phone and the phone app opened the garage door.
Taylor was behind him, trying to use his body as a windbreak, without actually touching him. She kept her head down and climbed into the truck when he did.
Scott started the engine and waited for the gauges to move. He loved the sound of the exhaust bouncing around the garage.
"What are we waiting on?" she asked.
"Waiting for the engine to warm up."
"Is this your only ride?"
"I have a mountain bike, why?"
She shrugged. "A guy like you should have a fancy car."
"I like my truck."
"I think you missed a lesson on being a rich guy," she said.
"You don't have any tricked out rides, no Crystal in your fridge, or bitches hanging out in a hot tub."
Scott laughed. "There's a difference between the rich rappers you see on TV and a wealthy guy."
"What do you mean?"
"A rich guy or rich rapper," he said, as he put the truck into reverse, "is the guy who has to sell his 'crib' for back taxes in five years. The wealthy guy is the one who buys that house cheap and sells it to the next rich guy."
"I don't get it," she said.
"That's okay." He completed the two-point turn and put the transmission in park. "I need to lock the fence." He hit the control for the Twelfth Street gate and detached the quick release on the key ring. "Be right back."
"Can I play with the radio?" she asked.
He closed the truck door and walked to the fence. The street gate was open and truck engine was running. If she wanted to make a break for it, he couldn't have left her a bigger opportunity. He brushed the snow off the fence lock and took his time 'finding' the right key. He got back to the truck and Star was bobbing her head in time with a song he didn't know.
A snowplow had been through Twelfth Street, but there was still an inch or two of fresh powder on the road. The big knobby tires of the Brute bit into the snow with ease, and the engine's torque drove the truck forward. At a crawl, barely above idle, the truck made the trip to Saint Bart's in under a minute.
Saint Bart's community services' building was located across the street from the cathedral. The lot hadn't been cleared of snow, but there were tracks and several cars parked in front of the building. The Christmas manger display was at the other end of the lot, facing the street.
Star looked around and bolted upright, "You're not turning me over to these people!" she screeched.
"Hey," he reached across the truck and touched her arm. "Relax."
"I won't go with them, I won't!"
"Star," he said firmly.
She shook her head.
Her eyes turned to his.
"I'm not turning you over to anybody." He squeezed her arm. "This church operates a community store. Anybody can come here and get warm clothing. They also have nice clothes for people who are going for job interviews."
She took a trembling breath and hiccupped.
"We're going to go in and get what you need. We'll grab breakfast after. Okay?"